NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Cincinnati Bengals kept calling Andy Dalton(notes) back for another meeting, for another look. All over the NFL there were doubts about the TCU quarterback in the run up to last April's draft. His ability wasn't high enough. His arm wasn't strong enough.
Rather than be bogged down with questions, the Bengals kept seeking answers. So back and back he came, a third time, a fourth time and finally a fifth. In most of those sessions Dalton visited Jay Gruden, the team's first-year offensive coordinator.
Other than a seven-year stint working for his brother, Jon, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jay Gruden had spent his career coaching in the Arena Football League and the United Football League, places where talent is often hidden and finding a difference-maker requires the keenest of eyes.
In Dalton, Gruden saw a winner, a young man with great composure and consistency, and an arm that was capable of a lot more than others believed. In Gruden, Dalton saw a young coach, 44 years old, who believed in him enough to turn the post-Carson Palmer(notes) Bengals over to him.
On Sunday the Bengals rallied on the strength of three Dalton touchdown passes to erase a 10-point deficit and beat the Tennessee Titans 24-17. The victory moved Cincinnati to 6-2, 4-1 on the road and owners of a five-game win streak, the franchise's longest in 23 years.
"I remember it well when I was 1 year old," Dalton joked. "I think it's just great. We have a lot of young guys that have the same mentality. It's worked for us so far."
The season is only half over. Pittsburgh visits next week, the first of four games against the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens. No one is celebrating anything at this point. That said, who thought the Bengals would be where they are right now, not just contending for the playoffs and the AFC North crown, but with the brightest of futures ahead of them.
The reasons go beyond Dalton and Gruden – a playmaking defensive line, a steady run game, a slew of receivers and so on. "All these guys are making big plays," Dalton noted.
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True, yet quarterback remains the most important position in the NFL and Cincinnati got itself a good one by looking at what Dalton could do, not what he couldn't. The Bengals gladly scooped up Green in the first round and Dalton in the second – "After the second round I was ready to go home," Gruden laughed.
It wasn't one game or one play or one answer in an interview that sold them. It was all of them.
"That's the thing about him, they were all great," Gruden said. "If he threw a bad pass or had a bad drive, he always rebounded. He never hung his head. And everyone around him rallied. He got everybody involved. He got to the right play at the right time.
"We saw his poise and composure on tape and his knowledge of football in general made him a great fit," Gruden said.
Gruden leaned on those years sorting through training camp cuts and small college players to build UFL and AFL rosters. It's easy to spot a budding superstar such as Green. The hidden gems require patience. Gruden has plenty of it.
"I can tell a guy," he said. "I can tell a special guy. Not always, but I've got a pretty good feel for difference-makers. Coaching in the UFL, you could see why guys were playing for you. They didn't have that extra gear of speed or that size or that strength or power. Some guys slipped through the cracks though and should've been in the NFL.
"This is not foolproof. I make mistakes obviously. Being in those leagues has helped me out in telling the difference between an average guy and a special guy."
Dalton appreciated Gruden and head coach Marvin Lewis' confidence and, if nothing else, the faith they put in turning the team over to him. Belief is a huge part of being an NFL quarterback and Dalton is brimming with it, a rookie who isn't rattled by a double-digit road deficit against a good team.
"I just try to stay the same regardless of what's happening," Dalton said. "I can't get too high, I can't get too low. I can't worry about what's happened, it's the next play. That's just how I've been."
"We're just doing whatever it takes to win."
That sentiment seems to be coursing through all of the Bengals. Despite a comeback road win that set up a heavily hyped game next Sunday, the Bengals maintained a satisfied, but not overly celebratory locker room. This was a matter-of-fact victory, this start to the season a surprise to everyone except them.
The Bengals' two losses came by a combined seven points.
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"I wish we were better," Marvin Lewis said.
"We could've been 8-0," Dalton noted.
Dalton is nowhere near satisfied. Everything is breaking right but he knows that won't last. The NFL is about improvement.
"He's made a few mistakes here or there but over the course of a game he doesn't make many," Gruden said. "And he very seldom makes the same mistake twice."
Dalton and Gruden will be back together early this week, working on the mistakes, game-planning for the successes. The season gets tougher from here as the rookie quarterback, the first-year coordinator and the upstart Bengals won't sneak up on anyone.
Like all those pre-draft meetings though, the trust and confidence in each other keeps building.
"We have a great relationship," Dalton said. "It's good to bounce ideas off of each other. He's definitely made this whole transition to the NFL a lot easier for me."
The offensive coordinator who saw a star in the making; the QB who appreciated the show of faith during what is otherwise a process of doubt. Together they're half a season in and stunning the league one clutch victory after the next.
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- Jay Gruden